How I Found the Untraceable

How about “@nicollhernandezpolanco”? Nope. There’s #NicollHernandezPolanco, #FreeNicoll, #TransWomenMatter — everything except her.

What about advanced search? Nope. There were no Twitter accounts under any variation of that name, at least not the one I’m looking for.

Time to scroll patiently through the hashtags. It doesn’t look like I’ll be able to find her.

But I have to find her. I know there’s a story here, and not just the story that the activists have been sharing all over social media. I’m looking for a woman who can tell me, from first-hand experience, the lengths many will go through to get to the United States.

In April, Nicoll Hernandez Polanco, who recently changed her name to Ashlé Nicoll Bexton, was granted asylum after six months in detention at a male facility. Activists in the L.G.B.T. and immigration circles were venting their rage about her treatment on Twitter and Facebook.

A transwoman held in a male immigration detention center: It’s not uncommon, but definitely underreported. Even then, I knew I didn’t want to tell the same story everyone else was telling. I wanted to know how she got to the United States. I had to know what a 23-year-old, transgender woman from Guatemala had to go through to get here. I imagined it was not easy.

I’m looking. I’m looking. Wait — wait. Is that her? I think it is.

By now I’ve given up on Twitter and I’m searching through Facebook. I can’t find an account under her name, but I’ve found the pages of some nonprofits who supported her release.

I’m on Mariposas Sin Frontera’s Facebook page and don’t have to scroll down too far through their history to find what I’m looking for. She’s on the floor in the picture, lying on her side with her head resting on her arm. She looks very happy among a group of what I can only assume are other members of the nonprofit.

“They know her!” I say out loud, not caring if the other reporters hear me talking to myself.

Immediately, I click the “message” option on their page. Sweet! Facebook isn’t going to charge me a dollar this time. There are so many dollars I’ve wasted trying to message people to see if they’re the person I’m looking for.

Several hours later, while walking down Fourth Avenue with my new best friends at the Institute, I screamed out in excitement.

I got a reply! Whoever was on the other end of the Facebook message — never actually found who that was — sent me Ms. Bexton’s phone number.

A week and a half later, the story is done. And it has been the most difficult one I’ve ever written. I’ve also never been prouder.